A Checkerboard Cake With Slovak Roots To celebrate the new year, Sasa Woodruff's mom bakes a punch torte, a tradition started in her family back in the former Czechoslovakia. Her mom was born during World War II and food was scarce, but thanks to her family's chickens, the 16 eggs the cake calls for were a luxury they could afford.

A Checkerboard Cake With Slovak Roots

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During this holiday season, we've been hearing about your favorite holiday foods and you sent us notes about dishes like menudo, wassail, ambrosia. And today we turn to Eastern Europe for a cake that is served on New Year's Eve.

Reporter Sasa Woodruff tells us about the four-layer, rum-soaked tradition.

SASA WOODRUFF BYLINE: To celebrate the New Year, for as long as I can remember, my mom has baked a cake called a punch torte or, as she says it, Punch Torte. It was a tradition started in my mom's family back in the former Czechoslovakia.

SASA WOODRUFF'S MOM: At midnight, we pour champagne and had a toast to New Year's. And then we hugged and kissed each other, drank our champagne and then we ate cold cuts, potato salad and after that we had the cake with a little bit of coffee.

BYLINE: It's a pink glazed sponge cake with layers soaked in a rum and citrus syrup. It all starts out with 16 - yes, 16 eggs.


MOM: Eight eggs for the basic dough, and then 8 eggs for the dough we divide in half. Half of it we make pink and half we put a cocoa in it and we make it brown.

BYLINE: You start by separating the yolks from the whites, mixing three different cake batters: one white, one pink, one brown.

The tradition of serving up this pink-glazed torte goes back to my great-grandmother's kitchen in the early 1900s. She ran a restaurant in the next town over, but at home she made all sorts of extravagant creations without the help of modern machinery.

MOM: Well, she make this very similar, except she would blend it and beat it all by hand.

BYLINE: My mother learned to make this cake as a young girl. She was born during the Second World War and food was scarce. But my family was fortunate enough to have a sprawling garden. So, the 16 eggs were a luxury they could afford.

MOM: We had chickens and we had goats for milk during the war when they were bombing in the town and so we were able to eat them and enjoy it.

BYLINE: Some of the other ingredients weren't so easy to come by. The cake soaks in a rum punch, which calls for the juice of one lemon and one orange. Finding citrus in this former communist country required both patience and connections.

MOM: If we got a one lemon for a tea, we had to stand in line for it for two-three hours. And if there was news that in a little vegetable store there would be lemons next day, somebody secretly told somebody and then everybody spread it between their friends. And then everybody lined up in front of the store and waited.

BYLINE: Once the lemons and oranges were acquired, they were squeezed into a cooked sugar syrup. The pink and chocolate cakes were cut into concentric rings and re-assembled to look like bull's eyes. The layers were stacked on top of each other and the syrup spooned over top.


BYLINE: Then a 24-hour wait.

The next day, the cake was glazed with a pink lemon frosting. In the 1940s and '50s, food dyes were not available, but my great grandmother had a stash hidden away.

MOM: She called the food coloring Breton. And now I don't know if it's from Bretagne from France, or where she was able to buy it. But I know these luxurious things after the war, and after the communists took over, they were not available. But lot of the stuff, my grandmother had left from the hotel and restaurants we had. And then we were so excited to see that lovely pink cake.

BYLINE: For me, the bubblegum colored frosting isn't the best part of this cake. It's when you cut into it. Thanks to those concentric circles, a dazzling checkerboard appears in each slice. It's best enjoyed with a glass of champagne.

For NPR, I'm Sasa Woodruff.

INSKEEP: And you can find the recipe for punch torte and other unique holiday foods at NPR.org.

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